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How To Follow Godly Leaders

Clergy/Leaders’ Mail-list No. 3-172 (Sermon)


by Don McLellan

It is my privilege to share some thoughts on pastoral leadership, as we wait on God concerning the appointment of a new pastor to our church. I spent 23 years in pastoral ministry before taking up my present ministry of teaching NT studies and theology in a Bible college, and you will no doubt be aware of parts of my own story as I share. My concern today is not to tell you how to choose the next pastor, but to put an important question forward. The question is, What are we going to do with him/her when he/she is appointed? How will we relate as followers?

Our Australian culture is one in which leadership is always an issue. We tend to be suspicious of anyone in leadership, an attitude that probably goes right back to the convict era. We tend to follow grudgingly, and if a leader does not please us we tend to make life hard.

The pastoral ministry, once quite a secure calling, has a very high dropout rate. Around sixty men were ordained in my home state in the five years before and after my own ordination in 1981, and less than twelve of them are still in the pastoral ministry, not counting retirees. That’s a dropout rate of 80%. Theological colleges in Australia are major burdens on denominational finances, but they could be downsized significantly if people would stay in the ministry longer than the current average of 5-7 years. Have you ever wondered why they drop out? Listen to this tongue-in-cheek job description adapted from “Crusader”, an American Baptist journal, March 1962:

“Wanted: Baptist Minister for Growing Church.

“A real challenge for the right man! Opportunity to become better acquainted with people!

“Right man will hold firm views on every topic, but be careful not to upset people. Must be frank but flexible; must return criticism and back-biting with Christian love and forgiveness.

“Should have outgoing friendly disposition at all times. Should be a captivating speaker and an intense listener. Education should be at least Masters level, but concealed in homespun modesty and folksy talk. Should be very familiar with TV shows people watch, but should not waste time watching TV. Must be up to date with latest theories regarding the Second Coming, and must spend 25 hours per week reading the latest popular Christian literature.

“Must be willing to work long hours, and subject to call any hour of the day or night. Must spend at least 25 hours per week in preparation, and 50 hours per week in visitation and face to face meetings with church people. Must give his wife and family quality time.

“Applicant’s wife must be both stunning and plain; smartly dressed but conservative in appearance; gracious and able to get along with everyone. Must be willing to work in the church kitchen, teach Sunday School, baby sit on call, play the piano, sing in the choir, cook a batch of cookies in less than five minutes, and endure gossip.

“Applicant’s children will be exemplary in conduct and character, well behaved while not distinguishable from other people’s children; willing for their father to forgo time with them.

“Applicant’s family must live in the house next door to the church and be prepared to assist with anything needed by people using the premises, including milk and sugar on demand. People must be allowed to walk in on the pastor’s family at any time of the day or night. For this reason the pastor must keep the garden in top order and his wife must keep the house tidy and the children clean at all times.

“If appointed, the pastor will be required to answer to any and every church member for his use of time and the deployment of his resources. He will accept that he is the servant of all. His sermons must be challenging but not confronting; brief but not trite; learned but not sophisticated; humorous but not degenerating into comedy; profound but not too deep. He must never use words of more than two syllables.

“Starting salary will be less than a McDonald’s employee, but overtime is to be donated free. All applicants will be screened to determine sanity.”

As I said, it is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I find it a little too true to be funny. However, while some of these crazy and unrealistic expectations may contribute to pastoral burnout, some of the biggest problems arise when he or she is appointed to lead, but no one wants to follow. I heard of one pastor in a “whistle- stop” town through which a train passed just once every day. Every day he would go down to the level crossing and shout and cheer as it went by. It didn’t take long for people to notice. So the deacons took him aside and demanded an explanation. “Well,” he replied, “That train is about the only thing I know of around here that I don’t have to push or pull.”

Brothers and sisters, it is vital that we learn to follow leaders. How?

1. Follow Godly leaders by remembering them in prayer.

Heb 13:7 Keep remembering your leaders who spoke the Word of God to you.

Heb 13:18 Pray for us. We are sure that our conscience is clear, and we desire to act honourably in all we do.

In the context of Heb 13, it seems that the writer is referring to previous leaders who had moved elsewhere or who had perhaps died. Hebrews wanted the memory of them to be kept alive. But the same writer also asks us to make a habit of remembering him and his colleagues in prayer. I received an email from a friend this week with a whole lot of pithy sayings and whimsical thoughts about church life, and one went like this:

“Get a better pastor. Pray for the one you’ve got.”

During my years in pastoral ministry, I was never more lonely and afraid than those occasional Sunday mornings when no one came out into the vestry to pray with me before the service started. I am glad to say that this does not apply to this church, but can I urge you to keep it up. Make it a top priority on Sunday mornings. Elders and deacons, encourage your pastor by getting with him/her for prayer before the service, and pray truly believing that God wants to use him/her to bring his Word to life that day.

And that is another reason for praying for the pastor. James warns us not to be in a hurry to become teachers, because “you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). While God is a loving God, I also read throughout the Bible that he is a God to be feared. How dare I presume to have a word from him to deliver to his people? How dare I come into the pulpit with a cavalier attitude? Do you expect to hear the word of God proclaimed from the pulpit? Then pray for your preacher. Pray for his/her prayer life. Pray for his/her intellectual life. Pray for his/her physical well being. Pray for his/her spouse and family. Pray for his/her thought life. Pray that he/she will remain pure, because illicit sex is sadly one of the devil’s favourite weapons for destroying a pastor’s ministry.

2. Follow Godly leaders by imitating their faith.

Heb 13:7b-8 Reflect on how their way of life turned out, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday, and he will be the same forever

I was rather surprised recently to count up the number of times Paul encouraged people to imitate him. Look them up: 1 Cor 4:16; 1 Cor 11:1; Phil 3:17; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Tim 1:13.

Godly leaders have a faith worth imitating. Well, if that is the case, then we ought to imitate them. May I suggest that we should not call a pastor whose faith is not worth imitating. The corollary is that if we do call one with such a faith, we should all set out to imitate it.

May I also suggest that God wants us to allow our next pastor to see visions and dream dreams, and that we should prayerfully take up those dreams and visions. Which takes us into the other verse on leadership here in Heb 13:

3. Follow Godly leaders by being inspired by them.

Heb 13:17 Let your leaders inspire you…

Most translations have “Obey your leaders…” However, the word translated “obey” here is not the most common word for obey, hupakouo, made up of two Greek words, hupo = under, and akouo = to hear. This is the kind of obedience expected from a slave – they hear from a position of inferiority; they obey because they have no alternative. But the Greek word used here is peitho which normally means to persuade. It is in the passive voice so could be translated, “Be persuaded by…”

It would be misleading to suggest that it should be translated that way, partly because in other contexts it clearly means to obey, and partly because the verse goes on to ask us to submit to our leaders. Nevertheless, the obedience called for here is not slave- like obedience. It is thoughtful participation in what the leader is on about. That is why I like to translate it, “Let your leaders inspire you…” Peterson translates it, “Be responsive to your pastoral leaders.” The main idea here is to get on board with your leaders. Where does our leader believe we should go? Then let his/her vision and passion inspire you to join in.

This must be done thoughtfully. God does not expect us or ask us, free as we are in Jesus Christ, to become so enmeshed with a leader that we don’t think for ourselves. My understanding of Christian leadership is that his or her task is to work with those he or she leads to discover together what the Lord is saying to the whole group. After all, the true leader of the church is not the pastor, but the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus tells us in Matt 18:19-20 that we are to agree in his name, because the risen Jesus is there in the church. He is the real leader, and in an important sense, the only legitimate leader. But God does lead through human leaders he appoints too. Leadership is a gift of the Spirit (Rom 12:8) and we ought to give them the authority the Lord wants us to give them. That means we should let them inspire us.

4. Follow Godly leaders by letting them do their task.

Heb 13:17 Accept their authority, because their task is to monitor your spiritual progress, and they will answer for how they do it. Make them happy as they do this. Don’t make them sad, because you will lose out if you do.

Here we must consider carefully what exactly the ministry of the leader is about. We live in an age when there is a lot of pressure on churches to adopt a business ethos. The pastor is asked to be an entrepreneur, and the church to be structured rather like a shopping mall with a core business and little businesses orbiting around it. Make no mistake, there is a place for doing the Lord’s business with an eye on efficiency and productivity, and for building good structures both organization wise and plant wise to maximise the work. But fundamentally the church is about relationships, and that is what we are to focus on as first priority.

Hebrews says to let our leaders inspire us and to accept their authority, because “they keep watch over our souls.” Brothers and sisters, like the pulpit, this is an awesome responsibility. Just as the pulpit has its cautions, because teachers incur a stricter judgment, so pastoral care has its sobering aspects. Pastors will give an account to God for their care of your spiritual life. It is vital that we should allow our pastor to exercise genuine care for our spiritual condition, both as a whole church and as individuals in the church. Never resent the pastor’s question, “How is it with you and God?” That is why he/she is here.

His/her task is also to see how we are getting on with one another. The Lord wants his church to demonstrate to the world that human beings really can get along well together. More, he wants them to show compassion and care for one another. Part of the pastoral task is to develop such relationships in the church that people know they belong to something really special.

In two weeks we will meet a man who could be our next pastor. Whether it be him or someone else, here is the challenge: How good a leader are we going to let him/her be? Leadership can not exist in a vacuum. You can’t have a leader without followers. Leadership is a dynamic relationship between the leader and the led. We have the potential to have a great leader, no matter who comes, by becoming great followers. Not blind followers who turn the leader into some kind of demi-god, but thoughtful and prayerful followers who pray for him/her daily, catch his/her vision, imitate his/her faith, and let him/her care for our souls.

Great leader + great followers = great church!

– Don McLellan <>


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